Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Does God Have a Mind?

Does God Have a Mind? The Process of Mind Attribution

Does God have a mind? Does a dog, a fly, a robot? Do children have minds? Does the blob have a mind? How do we make attributions of mental experiences to other entities? Recognizing when something has a mind is crucial. If I know that you have a mind, then I know you have ideas, desires, intentions, and goals. If I can understand your mind and your thinking, I can predict your behaviors. Do you see me? Do you love me? Do you want that last cookie on the tray?

Knowing that something doesn't have a mind is also useful. I am pretty sure that last cookie doesn't have a mind. Thus, I'm confident that cookie will not run away when I reach for it. But if you're in the room, and I think you want the cookie, I might need to hurry anyway.

We tend to frequently over-attribute mental states and abilities to other things. We even have a fancy word for attributing human qualities to other things - anthropomorphize. Clearly we sometimes attribute mind-like qualities to things that don't have minds. Sometimes, for example, I'm convinced that my computer is trying to ruin my day. My computer slows down just when I'm in a hurry. How does it know I'm in a hurry? Why did it decide to check for security updates right now? Why does my computer hate me?

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But how do we decide what things have minds? Among other things, we use aspects of movement to guide mind attribution. As I wrote in an earlier post (Why Cats Love Laser Pointers), certain forms of movement lead us to believe that something is alive - even if it's only the laser pointer's light dancing around on the floor. Other forms of movement can lead us to believe that a geometric shape has an intention - such as when we see a triangle chasing a circle (see the old Heider-Semmel video or the new wolf-pack illusion).

The mind of the blob

Movement can also lead people to believe that the blob has a mind. In that wonderful 1950s movie, the blob from outer space chases, attacks, and eats people alive. Run, don't walk, the narrator says in the trailer (see the classic trailer on You-Tube). Scientists have always wanted to study the blob, but getting the blob into a lab has been tricky. Recently, however, Daniel Wegner and his colleagues did just that - they studied the mind of the blob. First, they found that how fast something moves influences how willingly people attribute mental qualities to it. Morewedge, Preston, and Wegner started by asking people to rate the mental qualities of various animals. They found that animals that move at roughly the same speed as humans were considered to have minds similar to humans. Animals that moved more slowly or quickly were rated as having fewer mental qualities (people don't assign many mental attributes to the sloth and the fly).

Then they conducted their blob experiment. They created a movie with the blob in the starring role. A purple blob moved down the street and ate a stop sign, a car, and a bike (but no people or pets). In 3 different versions, Morewedge and colleagues varied the speed of the people in the background. Sometimes the blob appeared to move more slowly than the people, sometimes more quickly, and sometimes at the same speed as the humans (the Goldilocks speed for mind attribution). People thought the blob more conscious, intelligent, and intentional when it moved at human speed. I bet a blob moving at that speed would be scarier too.

Does God have a mind?

In other research, Wegner and his colleagues have investigated how people view the mental attributes of a wide variety of entities, including God. They asked people to rate mental attributes in a series of paired comparisons. For example, who is more able to feel pain: a 5-year-old girl or a frog? Respondents compared babies, children, adults, themselves, various animals, a robot, a dead person, and God. They compared these entities on a variety of mental qualities - such as, feeling fear, desire, hunger, and joy; having memories, morality, and self-control; and willingness to give the entities experiences like happiness, harm, and punishment. You can take a version of the survey at Wegner's web site (Mind Survey). Wegner and his colleagues concluded that people judge minds on two dimensions: experience and agency. People attribute both experience and agency to themselves and other adult humans: We feel things and do things. People attribute less agency to children and animals. They give some agency to a robot, but no experience aspects of consciousness. God occupies a unique position: loads of agency, but little in the way of experience.

So in answer to the question - yes, God has a mind insofar as people attribute a mind to God. But people attribute a mind quite different from what they attribute to themselves and other living beings. In many ways God may be like Watson, the computer that just won the game of Jeopardy. He knows things and can win the game, but he has never experienced the events that we take for granted. God is missing the experiences that result from living a life.


Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.


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